Mindfulness meditation seems everywhere these days. Even the corporate world embraces it, e. g., Google, Facebook, EBay and Twitter. And in medical circles, it’s all the rage, particularly in psychiatry where it increasingly rivals pharmaceutical intervention as a primary therapy in treating depression and general anxiety disorders.
But is there any real science behind mindfulness, or is it simply Buddhism warmed over for Western consumers?
Supposedly, mindfulness is all about being in the present. Never mind regrets about mistakes you made or things you’ll do to make things better. Just let go. What matters is being sentient in the Now. In the sports world, you might call it, “Being in the zone.”
Mindfulness, as in Buddhism, has three steps; namely, concentration, insight and its sequel, empathy.
You get there largely by focusing on your breathing. While your mind will inevitably stray with what Buddhists call “monkey mind,” don’t worry about it. Simply listen to, and not engage, any thoughts that press-in on you. Mindfulness encourages acceptance and avoids being judgmental.
But why mindfulness, even if its does help relieve your stress?
Why not a pill?
Why not counseling?
Or soft music?
Or having fun with a good friend?
Or relaxing on the beach?
Why not just slow things down and sit still?
Where’s the research to back-up the craze or to validate it’s more effective than traditional ways of promoting well-being?
In short, mindfulness has its critics, some of whom argue that self-confrontation can even be dangerous for you. Do you really want to probe repressed memories and labyrinthian chambers of loss, grief, and failure?
Melanie McDonagh, a writer for the Evening Standard (London), argues in Spectator that Mindfulness didn’t work for her, given her inability to stay focused.
Mindfulness is supposed to ultimately make you more compassionate. But where’s the proof of that?:
…as far as I can gather, it’s mostly About Me Sitting. Concentration on your breathing is a good way to chill out and de-stress, but it’s not a particularly good end in itself. Radiating compassion is fine, but it doesn’t obviously translate into action. Where’s the bit about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, all the virtues that Christianity extols? Where in fact is your neighbor in the practice of self-obsession?
In rebuttal, the test of properly practiced mindfulness is demonstrated outwardly in leaving ourselves behind and thinking of others. Any failure doesn’t lie in mindfulness, but those who really haven’t entered into what it’s all about. I like how Shinzen Young phrases it: “The new self is not a noun, it is a verb” (The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works).
What really irks McDonagh is an underlying dislike of Buddhism. While extolling the virtues of Christianity, she glosses over its redolent history of crusades, inquisitions, misogyny, embrace of slavery, hostility towards gays, colonial genocide, etc. You’ll not find any of this in Buddhism.
Mindfulness, as in Buddhism, or even Christianity, teaches you to rid yourself of the sense of a separate self. In short, we’re all part of the experiential flux of time and the temporal.
Stephen Batchelor, a former Buddhist monk, puts it this way in his observations of its exemplum in the Dalai Lama, whom he has met and spent time with on several occasions:
At the heart of [his] sensibility plays a deep empathy for the plight of others, which seemed to pour forth from him effortlessly and abundantly…Such empathy requires that one undergoes a radical emptying of self, so that instead of experiencing oneself as a fixed, detached ego, one comes to see how one is inextricably enmeshed in the fabric of the world (Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist).
McDonagh is just plain wrong in her reductionism, which short-circuits any fair appraisal based on a thorough knowledge of mindfulness in its antecedents, methodology, and scientific appraisal when she asserts that mindfulness is just essentially warmed-over hash: “Think meditation, think Buddhism, and you’re there, so long as you don’t forget the breathing.”
On the contrary, while Western mindfulness owes much to Buddhism, it’s essentially rationalistic, eschewing metaphysics, and eclectic in its make-up, drawing from many strands to implement those methodologies congruent with current science, validated through empirical research, much of it utilizing brain imaging data.
It professes no deities, practices no rituals; has no hierarchy, and no theology. It attracts the best minds.
What it does share with Buddhism–and science for that matter–is a belief in the interweave of causality and effect and the primary role of empiricism, not speculation, in assessing evidence.
Hence its appeal to Western minds and the fact that it works for diverse needs and in a plethora of settings.